Mehmet Osman Gülyesil is a Ph.D. student and lecturer with the law faculty of Humboldt University of Berlin. He studied law at Georg-August-University of Goettingen and Yeditepe University in Istanbul. His research fields are contemporary questions on minority rights, equality and inclusion from a constitutional perspective, legal theory, and comparative public law.
To be present in the current time and space means to reflect on and expose oneself to conventional concepts and the challenges that come along with certain ideas. Within modern nation states, the questions surrounding identity, diversity, and affiliation are just a few of the major topics circulating within Western societies. The relevance of debating these key concepts could be seen clearly in events receiving worldwide media coverage, such as the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia. The new generation of German, French, and Swiss players with diverse ethnic backgrounds has sparked many speculations on their (lack of) patriotism and domestic loyalty.
Certainly, this is not the first time sports and identity politics have intermingled; in fact, it can be argued that historically, it was more controversial than today. One prime example is the Black Power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the ceremony of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City which destroyed their careers as athletes. Another is Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enlist in the Vietnam War in 1967, which led to him being imprisoned, fined, stripped of his heavyweight title, and barred from professional boxing for several years. As much as some would like to say that these events are accidents of the past which we have learned from, similar de facto sanctions still occur today: two years ago, in 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, sparking a debate about racism in the United States. Today, Kaepernick is a free agent and ignored by NFL teams.
Conversely, whereas athletes are being sanctioned for their peaceful protest, football fans—or to be precise, hooligans—from various places have repeatedly vocalized their xenophobic and sexist slogans during games with little to no repercussions. The targets of these ugly and racist chants have generally been and continue to be players with black skin color. In the 1970s and 1980s a certain venomous phrase was all too common throughout English stadiums: “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack/Send them bastards back.”
While today Muslims and Islam seem to be favorable hate targets in some arenas, a blanket attempt to categorize the connection of sports with politics in a pessimistic, dystopian way would be too short-sighted. As society is changing, so is the world of sports. This is especially seen in terms of its protagonists. In times of xenophobia, and especially Islamophobia, professional Muslim players hold a certain importance as unofficial ambassadors of their religious heritage. Moreover, the effect that their performance, encouragement, and success has is as crucial as being positive role models. After France’s victory in the 2018 World Cup, Paul Pogba’s face was projected onto the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, while another Muslim player, Mohammad Salah, became the top scorer and player of the year in the 2017/18 season in the English Premier League representing Liverpool F.C. He repeatedly celebrated his goal by prostrating as if he were in Islamic prayer, and this was emulated by his mostly non-Muslim fans of the Reds.
Salah’s highly effective performance led the fans to compose songs about him. Some of their lyrics emphasized the connection of their love for him and their support of his Islamic faith: “Mohamed Salah/A gift from Allah/He came from Roma to Liverpool/He’s always scoring/It’s almost boring/So please don’t take Mohamed away” or the famous anthem “Egyptian King”: “If he's good enough for you/He's good enough for me/If he scores another few/Then I'll be Muslim too.” Today, Salah’s football boots are exhibited in the world renowned British Museum, next to historical icons such as Egyptian mummies or the Rosetta Stone.
Besides inspiring joy and admiration based purely on their athletic skills, it has to be emphasized that some Muslim athletes are initiators for constructive social debate. In the aftermath of France’s soccer World Cup championship, the contribution of Muslims on the national team was clearly pointed out. This serves several purposes: Muslim youth internalize a sense of belonging in a non-Muslim-dominant Western society, civil society appears more compelled to stand up against discrimination, and maybe the most important aspect is that the presence of Muslims both on the pitch and throughout society overall becomes a common, and not exceptional, factor. On paper, these players merely represent teams and nations; but, in reality, they are proving the compatibility of being a citizen of a Western nation and Muslim at the same time. Other powerful examples include Ibtihaj Mohammad, who represented the United States at the Olympic Games 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, won a bronze medal as a sabre fencer, and wore a headscarf, declaring her Islamic faith.
When even corporate giants like Nike and Matell see lucrative sales potential for cool-looking Islamic symbols in sports, and headscarf-wearing Barbie dolls are commercialized, then there is really nothing to worry about anymore regarding our common future. At least symbolically.